The Enquiring Mind: A Species on the Brink of Extinction

I feel quite precious about my BSc degree. I studied three long hard years to earn that rolled up piece of paper with its gold badge and blue stripe. And I did it all by wading through knee-buckling and mind-bending numbers of equations, published journals, scientific textbooks, physics lab sessions and titration kits. Every day, I was convinced by my subject matter that I was too stupid to study science and would, whilst walking between lectures, enviously glance over at the drama, film and media students playing guitar on the lawns outside the Arts Building on UCT’s Upper Campus. Look at them sipping R6 coffee, letting the fierce Cape Town sun burn off their whiskey hangovers; all of them looking super skinny and wearing clothing that was considered hip in the 60’s.

Typical habitat of the UCT hipster. Social structure: gregarious. Diet: yes. Activities: avoiding trends, political inactivism, bowl haircuts and wearing non-prescription eye-glasses (when it’s hot, without lenses)

Scientists Say: “Sciencey, Sciencey, Science, Science…”

Most of what the layperson knows about science has been hand delivered to them by the media. By the very people that wore non-prescription eye-glasses at university and smoked pipes (the Sherlock Holmes variety), while plucking thoughtfully at the braces redundantly holding their excessively tight-fitting skinny jeans up. I am mercifully stereotyping here, I know that. So let’s get serious… the headlines you read are almost always written by people who studied sociology, psychology, literature, journalism, film and media. Not the people that spent three, four, six or more years becoming trained in the ways of rigorous scientific study and reporting. This isn’t necessarily a BAD thing…

ANYONE can understand science. Science shouldn’t BE this intangible and untouchable fortress of knowledge that only the highly educated elite are allowed to enter. Science is the study of all the observable, measurable and physical things around us. It explains why the sky is blue, how diamonds are made, where babies come from and what the aurora borealis is. All it really takes to become a practitioner of science is an enquiring mind and a strict adherence to the scientific method, which is essentially the set of rules governing how you go about proving something… anything, really.

Now the two points I have made above may seem to stand in stark contrast with each other. Surely, if we should all actively try to understand and engage with science, the media should be more than encouraged to report on it. But this is actually where the problem arises. It’s in the delivery of messages that are geared to impress, shock, attention-grab and intimidate. Large black-and-white statistics that no one REALLY understands, but sound impressive anyway, thrust their way visually at us from news and magazine stands. A thumb-sucked example would be:

72% of ALL South Africans Have Herpes!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember answering any national surveys about my HPV-status, which immediately makes that statistic redundant. If you haven’t tested every single South African, then you can’t say that 72% of ALL South Africans have The Herp. You may go as far as saying that surveys of 1,000 university students reveal that the vast majority are clearly showing no discrimination in who they play tonsil hockey with.

You have to be so careful when publishing the results of controlled scientific trials, studies and research. More importantly, YOU – the reader – have to be so careful when reading what the media has to say about these studies. In an effort to craft headlines that sell, the media takes the results of years of careful measurement and data analysis and interprets them in a way that will sell their product. There are two fundamental problems with this:

1. The true findings of the scientific study and their greater application to our knowledge base is almost always lost in translation

2. It creates a massive divide between the layperson and the entire discipline of science.

Reporters throw around big, impressive and authoritative words and phrases, such as “results of a scientific study”, “scientists say”, “scientists prove”, “according to scientific evidence”, etc. And the result is that our enquiring minds have been left on the very brink of extinction.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

It’s such a pity that people feel so disconnected from science and from an understanding of the world around us. What is even more of a pity is that we just accept the statistical fodder thrust at us. “Whoa! I’d better start eating more avocados! According to the health section in the You Magazine, it reduces varicose veins by 69%!

Side note: I’m totally thumb-sucking here, but in the past, You Magazine has used the health section to provide some wild-sounding statistics relating to food and nutrition. They seem to have cleaned up their act as far as science reporting is concerned.

By the way, I ONLY buy You Magazine for the crossword puzzles!

…and maybe to collect pictures of Justin Bieber. What?

Do yourself a favour. The next time someone says: “According to scientists” or “Scientists say” ask them: “Oh? In which peer-reviewed journal was that published? And what methodology was followed when they tested the efficacy of avocado in reducing the appearance of varicose veins?”

Be a little more critical of the ‘sciencey’ information people, companies and brand names use to convince you to subscribe to their beliefs, products or services. Find out the facts for yourself. Ask why? How? Revive your enquiring mind! Bring it screaming back from the edge of the gaping chasm of blind acceptance. Not only will it make you sound incredibly intelligent, but you will actually BE more intelligent.

Although that may not go down well with your hipster friends.

Author: Thea Beckman

Domain Eukarya, kingdom Animalia (Metazoa), phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, order Primates, family Hominidae, genus Homo, species Homo sapiens, subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens... essentially. I have a Master's Degree in Atmospheric science, which doesn't entitle me to be generous with my opinion, but my sense of self importance does! I love writing, I love science, I love reading, but I'm not nuts about long walks on the beach. Short to medium walks are preferable. This is my blog and I have something important to say: https://whybecausescience.wordpress.com/

13 thoughts on “The Enquiring Mind: A Species on the Brink of Extinction”

  1. Ok, so i have two points which i believe you should figure into your calculations:

    1) Perhaps a media which was not driven by profit motive would be more prone to accurately report science-y goodness.

    B) We laypeople also become very confused when the scientists disagree across disciplines (and really, who among us doesn’t strive for a cross-disciplinary existence?) Either the Egyptologists are right, or the Geologists are; and if the Physicists are right about the Quantum Madness that underpins all our realities then ALL of the sciences need to be critically re-examined in a way that we, as “a species on the brink of extinction” (you’re so dark) are probably not collectively ready to question.

    What do you say to that? Ms. Science-Pants?

    1. I definitely agree with your first point. That doesn’t, however, make it a plausible suggestion. Money makes the world go around! I think we just need to raise the bar as far as science reporting is concerned. In order to do that, we need to raise the standards of science education and our general exposure to it. If children grew up with scientific terms, concepts and methods as a part of their vocabulary, would they be so quick to believe those shocking headlines with highly warped statistics?

      For example: Out of a sample of 100 people, in one year, one person died of cardiovascular disease. The next year two people died. This could be interpreted as: “Incidence of Cardiovascular Disease DOUBLED! Our Health Out of Control!” This isn’t entirely incorrect, but this headline has taken the information and TOTALLY warped its meaning out of recognition! If journalists were science educated (and many of them are – those that get hired by National Geographic magazine at least) they would understand that this kind of reporting is completely corruptive.

      Re your latter point. As a Doctor, as one might presume from your username, I wouldn’t think that you fall into the ‘layperson’ category as far as science is concerned. But that’s just a trifle observation. I do agree that there is a huge amount of conflict and competition between disciplines and it is all very confusing. I would like to emphasize that my point is not about the human race being on the brink of extinction, but rather our enquiring minds. With 7 billion people on Earth, I’d hardly call our species ‘vulnerable,’ unless there’s an asteriod hurtling towards Earth that NASA is yet to announce.

      That’s what I have to say about THAT 😉

  2. As someone who knows your fine self really well, when you say: “By the way, I ONLY buy You Magazine for the crossword puzzles!

    …and maybe to collect pictures of Justin Bieber. What?”. I know its not for the crosswords.

  3. Scientifically speaking I have found in a study conducted on myself, that generally speaking I am 100% fond of your blog!

    1. That is not a very scientific statement, Wanita. I’d need to know the methodology you followed in order to verify the outcome of this study, which, by definition, is highly subjective and not objective as all scientific studies should be. If you are talking about a distinct precedent for laughing and learning, then I would say that you are definitely fond of my blog. 100% is a very generous estimate, but an estimate it is.

      In English: Thank you!!! 😉

  4. As someone from an Arts (literature, international relations, public policy and health policy) background I think its a good point you make about interpretation. Often the media interprets reports and journal articles to the lowest common denominator and sensationally rather than as an educational tool…

    I work in an industry driven by “evidence” and the interpretation of this supposed “evidence” in the development of health programs. In the years I’ve worked in health policy my experience has come to conclude that you can have the most efficacious program with solid evidence and great patient outcomes, but it will never be implemented, as there is no political will nor opportunity to push it…

    I’ve already disclosed my lack of scientific based academic education but I know how to engage with complicated information more than average Joe. It’s my job to know how to interpret complex evidence into readable briefings and often to use it to make policy. I think that academics have a long way to go in actually engaging a wider audience. Their way of writing and the journals they publish in are closed to people who aren’t educated. Academics need to realise that there is benefit in engaging with those who interpret the information, at a minimum. If we can’t understand the message, who can? Often its easy for the media to just grab what seems exciting and run with that instead of reading the report, whether it was the intent of the research or an unintended outcome.

    That’s my 2c Bonezy!

  5. Yes, overstating attention grabbing statistics is a problem, but I think you miss a bigger and much more important problem with how the media presents Science. The media approach science in the same way that they approach a story about a local strip joint…”I think the strip joint is tearing this town apart and should be shuttered for good.”…..”I think we have the freedom to watch stripping if we choose!”

    Do you see where I’m going with this?

    The he-said-she-said works great for most things, but not for Science. If the scientific consensus is that the earth’s climate is changing in large part due to the release of green house gases by humans then when the media presents it the same way as my strip joint analogy, then Average Joe sees it as an opinion.

    To be honest, I don’t care if the media tells Grandma to eat more avocados. I do care if they convince the general public that there are two equal and opposite sides to the IMPORTANT issues that face our world.

    1. That is an exigent point. It irks me the way some people say: “If you wanna believe in Global Warming, that’s your opinion.” Some people, the ex-president of this country and probably the current one too even go so far as to say that HIV does not cause AIDS and that anything to the contrary is a matter of opinion. You’re right! Science is not about opinion. It is about substantiated, proven, observable fact. There is no “I think, I believe, the way I see it.” It is solid, sexy fact. The media do tend to lend this idea to the public that the arguments surrounding modern global issues of science are multi-faceted. But then again, perhaps it’s not just the media at fault here. A previous commenter highlighted the point that the various scientific disciplines themselves are locked in constant conflicting battle over certain issues. Geologists might argue with archeologists who might quibble with Egyptologists over a particular finding. The result? Three different interpretations – opinions? – of the same observation. Perhaps that’s where some of the public get the feeling that science IS open to opinion or interpretation.

      Anyway, thank you so much for your input. Very interesting.

  6. I like that one. Here’s my view on science/scientists. A theory is proposed, then peer-reviewed, then attacked from all angles to see if it holds. If it does, it only holds “for now”, because we can’t tell what evidence might surface to shake the tenets, but we use them while they work. Example, Newton’s theory of Gravity; it enabled accurate prediction of the positions of the planets. Then clocks got more accurate and it was found that Mercury was lagging a smidgen. No one knew why until Einstein’s Relativity theory explained that close to the sun’s huge mass, time slows down. So, while we can consider something proven, we should always keep a tiny place in or minds for doubt.
    As for the commercial use of “statistics” believe them at your peril. “This tyre gives twice the mileage!” (I omit to mention that I’m comparing it to a banana peel).

  7. Your ideas and writing are brilliant. Thank you for taking the time to make your points both interesting and funny. Let’s face it, a stout sense of humor is often the thing that gives scientists the constitution to pull through long hours of physics and organic chemistry, without bludgeoning their hipster counterparts in other majors with our voluminous textbooks. …um, I hear. I am happy to report from a completely subjective view, that the trend in upcoming graduate students in marine science here at UCSC seem to be honing their communication skills. In a few short years, the presentations I’ve heard from them have moved from mumbled, foot-staring nerdery, to Broadway-quality presentations that make the science easy to understand for the layperson. It doesn’t bridge the gap for a wide public audience in the way that the media could, but it’s a start. I’m finding some comfort in what appears to be scientists taking communication into their own hands. Reporters botch things horribly, even when there are no statistics to brandish. It appears that some of the local scientists are sticking to spoon-feeding the media, only the pertinent information that reporter’s can’t screw up for an exciting pop-out quote. At it’s core, the news is an entertainment industry (especially in this country). Science, as you know, is bursting with entertainment value. Anyone who has had a biology teacher worth their salt, knows that a discipline which is largely concerned with reproduction is hysterical. I think that scientists need to be able to make those connections with the public that make learning about our world entertaining again. It may take some innovative framing to engage people to the point that they will think critically about our world again, but more than a few people are waking up to that idea (it appears you’re included). For a species that derives deep satisfaction from catastrophe, you’d think that climate change would get more traction. How do we make important issues that may save us from ourselves, entertaining enough for people to at least participate in their solutions, if not think critically about them?

    Anyway, here’s to obstinately working for a scientifically enlightened future. Thanks for making it a joy to learn. Do keep up the good work. I’ll keep reading.

    1. I absolutely agree with you: looking at the natural world with inquisitive eyes allows us to be entertained in a way that no man-made construct can. This is something I’ve never appreciated about religion, or at least the explanatory mechanisms it provides. To me, it leaves more questions than answers. Also, it’s not science that eliminiates the real beauty and awe-inspiring nature of the physical world… rather, it emphasizes it! That was one of the points in my post “We are Star People.” How beautiful is that? Made from the stuff of exploded stars! I find that FAR more poetic and breath-taking than being made from the rib of a man.

      Thank you for reading and for your contributions!

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